Jill Shedden, Women’s Business Council member, Group HR director at Centrica plc. discusses the challenges and support available to women returning to the workplace.
Supporting women in returning to the work place is a real issue. Having been on maternity leave twice in my career I know first hand the importance of having a supportive employer and network to enable the transition back. For many women however, returning to the workplace comes with challenges and barriers that prevent them from ever fulfilling their career ambitions.
The recent WBC Report talks about ‘Getting On’ and ‘Staying On’ in the workplace and I recently chaired a roundtable discussion exploring this further. We invited a selection of companies that are demonstrating best practice, and equality and diversity stakeholders covering Carer’s to Working Families.
We first heard from Sarah Graham, a Centrica employee, who shared her experience of returning to work after a 5 year career break. To get her foot in the door she was ‘sponsored’ by another Centrica employee. She was offered a job and her manager was supportive of her request to work 4 days a week. Sarah has been working hard since returning to work to rebuild confidence and refresh her skills.
We also heard from Julianne Miles and Katerina Gould, who had set up Women Returners. They highlighted some of the difficulties women find getting back into the labour market after an extended career break. Some recruiters simply rule out applications from women for senior jobs just because they had a career break. For these women there is not just a glass ceiling, the very doors of the corporate world are closed to them.
More enlightened businesses are beginning to discover that women returning to work are a fantastic addition to their talent pipeline, and see the virtues of brining in their experience, fresh perspective and flexibility. We heard how these women are also positive role models for others, aiding retention.
There still barriers, however. CV gaps are viewed suspiciously, but a mere language change to ‘sabbatical’ changes the conversation. And just because a company has a Gender Diversity Policy, it doesn’t always translate so well in reality in their recruitment and selection processes.
Credit Suisse have developed an innovative way around this, whereby every vacancy has to be measured against its suitability for flexible working. This has resulted in over 70% of vacancies being advertised as flexible working.
A more common way of supporting women as they return to work is by keeping in touch with them during their career break.
There are many examples of this, such as returnships, as trialled and trademarked by Goldman Sachs, KIT Schemes (Keeping in Touch) as utilised by PWC and others, and Return to Work training programmes as used by Morgan Stanley and the Royal Institute of British Architects, both of which encourage women in STEM.
There is a real value to having KIT-type days, and it’s vital that these are used as a meaningful tool rather than something which is seen as obligatory by both the employer and the employee.
Julianne and Katerina, who had set up Women Returners, also called for a radical change in the work place culture and in working hours’ culture, to support the transition for women back into work.
As more men also take career breaks, for example taking extended paternity leave which will hopefully happen under the new government policy on Shared Parental Leave, this should help a culture change in the work place.
Centrica has a good support structure, but like many companies there is still room for improvement in developing and maintaining an agile workforce. For example, I am currently considering how to set up a version of a Returnship that works for Centrica and its employees.
I hope that more employers will begin to appreciate the real talent that exists amongst the women returners, as well as the real economic benefits that come from getting women back into the labour market.
The more opportunities that are created for women returners, the more apparent this will become.